Memoirs of a self-teacher (#1)

(Excuse the meandering at the bottom of this post. I'd like to set up what will be the beginning of an ongoing series of shorter entries.)

To start off, two dangerous and curiosity-laden moments from my childhood:

Summer, circa 1982, and it's shortly after the 4th of July.

I can remember sitting on my bum out in the driveway, melting under the midday sun. No shirt. Just a pair of soccer shorts and tennis shoes. No socks. My legs are spread wide in front of me. In my right hand is a powerful magnifying glass stolen borrowed from my brother (who's legally blind). In front of me on the ground, in the middle of the  broken triangle formed by my outstretched legs, is a firecracker.

Black Cat. Not a small one that comes tied to its brethren,en massein a red paper wrapper. Not quite "toilet exploding" size, but still big enough to pack a wallop. A good one. The science experiment du jour; Can I light a firework with the heat generated by sunlight focused through a magnifier (and survive)? I already knew the magnifier was lethal to ants. And junebugs. And arm hair.


I can't even remember seeing the fuse ignite and burn down. I only remember silence one moment and a deafening boom the next.I can clearly remember the ringing in my ears. The smell of spent gunpowder. The quickened heart rate. My mom would have killed me had she seen what I was up to.

I clearly remember thinking "Wow! The cause of that fuse's ignition was far too quick and unexpected for me to anticipate" as opposed to "Damn! I'm so lucky my hand didn't get blown off!". To this day, the curiosity is what seems the most palpable.

Story 2:

Move ahead to the Summer of 1985. Once again, I'm seated on the ground. Indoors. In the kitchen.

A string of eight (8!) D-cell batteries are taped together in an attempt to create a powerful source of electricity. Positive to negative. Positive to negative. Positive to negative... eight times over. Attached at one end of the bank of batteries is a length ofwire scavenged from an old extension cord. A similar length is attached to the other. In front of me on the floor, again in the middle of the broken triangle formed by my outstretched legs, is a glass hand grenade (ok... flash bulb) from a vintage Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera.

"Just how bright will it be when I connect 8 batteries to it? I'll just connect it for a split-second."

I've yet to see anything else as bright as that flash bulb. There was so much current that the bulb's glass partially melted in my hand during in that brief moment that it was connected to the batteries... although I couldn't see what had happened. A bright blue spot remained in my vision for almost 30 minutes. A large burn blister formed on my palm within a few minutes.

My mom never knew.

That's how things were back then. I ran some cold water on it and went to find a bandaid in the hall closet.

"Rub some dirt in it, kid..."

The details about the batteries' brand has faded. Color of the tape holding them together? Gone. The curiosity, however, is still right here.

Where does the curiosity to self-teach and experiement come from? I have a sense that there is a long spectrum regarding the willingness/ability to self-teach. Why do some folks find themselves with seemingly unending curiosity? Why do those folks also tend to be Polymaths?

I feel as though I grew up during a simpler time. A slower time. If you've watched Netflix's newest series, Stranger Things, you'll have a broad picture of my childhood years (minus the alternate dimensions and monsters). Information was not as abundantly available to the general public. No internet. No cell phones. Few computers in homes. If you wanted to learn something outside of formal circles, you had to make it happen on your own.

Go to the library and figure it out. Experiment.

As I try to gauge the trajectory of the second half of my life, I also reflect on the things that have had some small influence on where I am today. A "free range childhood" was a significant factor. Growing up alongside other fiercely competitive self-teachers was probably significant as well. Those simple "Aha!" moments from childhood and adolescence laid a framework that has led to a life of varied pursuits and interests: trumpet playing, architecture, photography, early music, pipe organs/organbuilding, instrument making, computers, and so forth. Much of my education has been formal. Yet, very little of that formal education has escaped a desire to self-teach related disciplines alongside.

These are just little stories. Banal. Possibly silly. Stories that show how curiosity and love-of-learning reared its ugly head during simpler times. Some stories will be from childhood, some from college years. None will likely seem profound.


Cheers, Shelby

Creative gear on the road - (Road Diary #3)

08.07.2016 (This is a longish, gear-centric post... But I'm sharing my gear list - trumpet and non-trumpet - in this post with hopes that it might help other trumpet (music!) folks travel with a bit less anxiety).

(Abstract - Marcus Bona case and Natural trumpet)

It's possible to make it across the country with your trumpets and your digital office. You don't have to check them. It takes planning. Creativity. Compromise. 

It is possible.

I have little room to complain when I speak of air travel with trumpets and the other gear associated with a career in the arts. Many have it much worse: Tubists. Cellists. Bass players. Drummers. For folks with larger equipment these folks, air travel can be a real nightmare. Even with the latest laws that support instruments as carry-ones, dealing with airline staff while boarding can induce a lot of anxiety. 

I hate it.

Instrument size, however, is not the only hurdle.

My overriding strategy is always: Instrument(s) = "Carry on", Essential creative/office gear = "Personal Item". 

For early music gigs that demand flying... I try to fit all needed instruments in a single Marcus Bona natural trumpet case that can serve as my carry-on. The remainder of my music, writing, and photo gear go into my "personal item": this Domke camera bag. It fits under the seat in front of me and carries a ton. I generally remove the included padded divider when using it as a travel bag. 

The Bona case is a bit too long to be considered a legal carry on, but its cross-section is so small that it fits in any overhead bin I've ever seen. It also hides on my back as I board the plane, drawing less attention from the "you have to check that" police.

My clothes might not make it across country, but I'll be damned if I show up in a new city without my performance and work gear. Sending it under the plane is NOT an option. On this particular trip out west, my performance gear list looks like this:

  • Egger Baroque Trumpet Corpus - MDC Long model (4 hole)
  • Keavy Baroque Trumpet Coprus - 4 hole model
  • (3) Egger Crooks in D415 and C415 for Purcell - D440 for Mozart
  • (3) Keavy Crooks in D400, C440, and Eb400 for Mozart
  • (6) Assorted 4-hole Yards for the keys above, plus a "no-holes" yard
  • Assorted leadpipes and tuning bits
  • Egger "Bull" BL5 and BL2 Mouthpieces, as well as a "spare" (Egger SI-7 Opt)
  • Music for Purcell's The Fairy Queen and Mozart's Don Giovanni

(I wish I would have remembered trumpet stands)

I was able to get all of the gear above, with exception of a few crooks and the mouthpieces, in my tiny Bona case. I used a microfiber car drying towel to buffer the trumpets from one another. As I buy more crooks for the Egger, the Keavy will stay home. The crooks and mouthpieces went in my "personal item" bag (the Domke camera bag mentioned above).

(Abstract snap from my Instagram feed of the two trumpets in the case)

I enjoy publishing regularly to my Instagram feed, even while traveling. Something for which I prefer NOT to use my iPhone if possible... As the small sensor and lens allows for little creative control of depth of field. For this reason I bring one or two large-sensor compact cameras. Downtime on the road is also useful for catching up on project planning, scheduling, creative writing, correspondence, and similar tasks. I'm trying hard to balance gear size with performance.

Is it worth it to bring it?

For the first time for me, there is no laptop on this trip. All photographic processing has been on an iPad (shooting Raw+Jpg on my cameras... Processing jpegs on the road, Raw files later on the laptop if I want), as well as all other tasks too intensive for my iPhone. On this trip, the supplementary gear list looks like:

  • Apple iPad (4th Generation)
  • Anker Bluetooth Keyboard
  • Anker folding iPad stand
  • Sigma Dp1 Merrill Compact Camera (fixed 28mm lens)
  • Sigma DP3 Merrill Compact Camera (fixed 75mm lens)
  • Lightning-to-SD Card adapter (importing photos from Camera's SD Card to iPad's Camera Roll)
  • Charging Cord and "block" for iPad/Phone (shared)
  • Anker "PowerCore" lithium external battery (charging iPad and Phone on long travel days)

To be completely honest, a small laptop wouldn't take up any more space than the iPad and Bluetooth keyboard. This, for me, is a question of working style. I enjoy the option of using the iPad with a keyboard (Work mode) or without (House of Cards mode). It can also serve as a music reader on the stand, using an app such as forScore, without the keyboard becoming a nuisance. While traveling, I also appreciate the continuity of interface between iPhone and iPad. 

(My desk on this trip - notice the file error on the right side of the image... I think a product of the cheap card reader)

I also could replace the Sigma compact cameras with a single zoom-enabled compact or mirrorless camera... Something I'm considering in the future. Again, this is an issue of working style. When I shoot with my DSLR cameras, I only shoot with fixed-focal-length lenses. My entire research trip to Rome, Italy in 2014,  was shot at 28mm on the DP1M. I was very happy with the results... So I'm sticking with the cams for now. 

My hopes are that this is helpful to some folks. I'd love messages or comments regarding this subject. Air travel for musicians can be an anxiety-laden situation... But it is possible to travel with your axes and your office with some careful planning.

Cheers! Shelby

(Some samples from the Sigma DP1 Merrill - low quality captures from my page Facebook)

Baroque (any!) music doesn't care about your chops (Road Diary #2)

(Metal waiting to be joyously reunited with my face) 08/05/2016 (Happy Anniversary, Alicia!)

Know a serious trumpeter? You probably know someone consistently neurotic about the idea of a "warmup" and how important it is to their "chops".

My experience tells me that baroque music generally gives zero $h!ts has little concern regarding a trumpeter's chop comfort. Don't ask baroque music how it feels about your warmup. It doesn't care.

Trumpet playing is not a comfortable proposition: trapping the lips between the teeth and a metal ring-shaped cup in order to make music. It's not natural. Warming up eases one's face into the discomfort associated with playing difficult repertoire. It reestablishes flexibility. Feel. Response. Ease. It lessens the stiffness left from last night's four hour horn-band gig. Or a Mahler symphony. Or a second line parade.

It greases the mechanism. Allows, to some extent, the physical sensation of playing to drop away while the mind focuses on musical intention. I consistently warm up, as the positive effects last well throughout the remaining day. Still, there is a difference between "warmup" and "playing warm". This distinction is sometimes lost on younger and/or inexperienced trumpeters. 

We have to deal with playing "cold". Orchestral gigs. Church gigs. Wedding gigs. It's part of the job. Sometimes life casts disaster in front of you and you miss a warmup altogether. Car trouble or heavy traffic force one to be late to gig: No warmup. Sick offspring: No warmup. Laziness: No warmup. Donuts and coffe in the green room: No warmup. Other times, you warm up but have extended time between warmup and performance... forcing "coldness" upon your chops. Playing cold is a reality: warmup or no warmup. 

I find it to be the rule, not the exception, in orchestral baroque music. 

I think back to last night's rehearsal of Purcell's "Fairy Queen". The approximate timeline might look like this (if my memory serves me well):

  • Arrive at 6:30 - Warmup
  • 7 pm - Rehearsal starts (a run through of the opera)
  • 7:20 pm - Play the 5th movement (the first time trumpets play in the Opera)
  • 7:30 pm - play the  12th Movement
  • 8:15 pm - Intermission - attempt to play a bit to "keep warm" ... shushed while more important other instrumental sections work out things still not prepared well enough for performance. 
  • 8:30 pm - play rigorous 30th movement to open the second half of the opera
  • 8:40 pm - play the 39th movement
  • 8:45 pm - play brief 45th movement
  • 9:15 pm - play short, but exposed, 51st movement
  • 9:45pm - play movement 59

At no point during that rehearsal did the trumpets start a movement with "warm" chops. The timing of the individual movements did not allow it. "Fairy Queen" is, by many accounts, an easier work for the baroque trumpet (I mostly agree). Bach's Mass in B-minor has similar extended breaks followed by incredibly strenuous and virtuosic writing for the trumpets. Messiah, too. Easter Oratorio. Christmas Oratorio. Cantatas. Magnificat. Operas.  

They all throw you in the deep end. A life preserver, emblazoned with "playing warm" in big red letters, is never provided. 

I've only found a few things that help one deal with the physical discomfort; 1) practice playing "cold" a lot and 2) keep the mouthpiece/horn physically warm by cupping it in your hand and blowing warm air through it before having to play. Mentally, when cold, I simply try to concentrate on the musical line as well as the "blowing" and devote as little mental energy to the chop discomfort as possible. With time, it becomes normal and the associated anxiety disappears lessens. For me, the lovely musical experience makes the discomfort worthwhile. 

So, moral of the story? I'm not sure there is one. Maybe: Warm or Cold? Doesn't matter. Either way, you gotta make it work.